Tuesday, 13 January 2015
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
The Viral Storm is a great example of a widely accessible science book. I have a science degree, but I specialised in neuropsychology, and I am rusty to say the least with regard to anything else! Wolfe assumes no prior knowledge in the reader, and has a really clear style that means he presents his information clearly and concisely. I loved the initial section explaining the science of viruses, even if the information about just how many are out there made me squeamish (250 million virus particles per ml of seawater!). Although studies are referenced, Wolfe doesn't get into the nitty gritty of how they were conducted or the analysis of results, which is just what I wanted in a general introduction to a topic like this.
One of the many things I didn't know before reading The Viral Storm is that viruses in humans can almost always be traced back to animal contact. Whether it's a bite, or contact with tissues and blood through hunting, it comes back to our interaction with the environment. The history of HIV included was very interesting, especially as this is something that is often misrepresented in the media. I also didn't know that when a person has two viruses, they can mutate and create mosaic viruses combining elements of both, which is how some pandemics have started.
Wolfe's key argument is that we are living in a time when the potential for pandemics is high. When our ancestors learned to cook food, destroying microbial life, the viruses we were exposed to gradually lessened, meaning that they are all the more potent when we do catch them from animals. Poverty forces many populations into subsistence hunting, which is often linked to human transmission of animal viruses. And our inter-connected world means that viruses have a greater than ever potential to spread rapidly, and come into contact with more people than ever, But that's not to say the book is all doom and gloom, as Wolfe recounts some of the work being done to prevent pandemics, and the early successes of such projects.
On the whole, The Viral Storm was an accessible and enjoyable read. I learned a lot from it, but the reading experience never felt like a chore. The inclusion of the memoir sections really broke up the science and it was interested to see what studying viruses in the field actually entails. My only (minor) complaint is that sometimes Wolfe was a bit repetitive, but this didn't alter my enjoyment. Definitely recommended.
Source: Personal copy
Score: 4.5 out of 5